Some people dread Pesach preparation time, but not for the reason you think. As challenging as it can be to search for and eliminate chametz, chametz isn’t rude, it isn’t insensitive and it doesn’t hurt feelings. People, on the other hand, often unintentionally, are or do all three. In conversations, around Shabbos tables and even from the pulpit, we casually describe ourselves or the atmosphere surrounding Pesach as an “OCD holiday” or refer to “neurotic” people preparing for Pesach. Of course, nobody means harm when using these descriptions; they only intend to highlight the intensity and attention to detail necessary in Pesach preparation.
Yet, I have come to learn that such casual and careless use of language can, even unintentionally, be hurtful and harmful to people navigating clinical OCD and neurosis. Describing the annual process of cleaning and kashering for Pesach as “OCD” diminishes what that diagnosis really means and minimizes the challenge of navigating and living with it. It can cause those already feeling themselves on the outskirts of society as being even more not understood or supported.
I recently wrote about the dangers of safe spaces and taking personal responsibility for whether we allow others’ words to hurt us. But make no mistake, that doesn’t absolve us of our obligation to use our words sensitively, to be careful how we speak and watch the language and terms we use.
Don’t use terms or expressions like “I’m so OCD,” “I’m depressed,” or “I have anxiety” flippantly or glibly. These words have real meaning and when we use them out of context or apply them inappropriately, we diminish them and rob the people they apply to of language that captures their story.
As mental health challenges have proliferated, we have an even greater responsibility to be sensitive, supportive and steadfast in removing stigma surrounding these issues. Depression, anxiety or OCD are no more the fault of the person suffering with it than cancer or Alzheimer’s are the fault of someone suffering with one of those conditions. Just as the patient with cancer cannot simply will his or her cancer away and the individual with Alzheimer’s cannot simply choose to stop forgetting, the person with depression cannot just “decide” to not feel anxious, worthless or exhausted, and a person with OCD cannot simply choose to stop having obsessive thoughts or behaviors.
Having a physical illness can be awkward, but should not be a source of embarrassment or guilt. Similarly, having OCD, depression or anxiety are equally out of one’s control and should not be a source of shame or give a feeling of inadequacy.
In the winter of 1902-1903, Rav Shalom Dov-Ber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe known affectionally by the acronym Rashab, traveled from Lubavitch White Russia to Vienna to consult with the famous Professor Sigmund Freud. He was accompanied by his son, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (who later became the sixth Rebbe), who then told the story of these encounters to his son-in-law, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe transcribed it and once shared it at a public gathering in 1962.
The Rashab was 42 years old at the time and was struggling with depression. Rav YY Jacobson describes that the Rebbe told Freud that after years of working on himself, he hadn’t been successful, “Not one faculty have I refined, not one idea is really clear in my mind.” He had feelings of inadequacy, particularly in comparison to his ancestors. The Rebbe was in Vienna for more than three months and met with Freud several times. While we know the Rebbe had an impact and influence on Freud, it is also reported that the Rebbe embraced Freud’s treatment and support.
Recently, Artscroll published “Rav Chaim: The Life and Legacy of the Sar HaTorah,” by Rabbi Naftali Weinberger. An article in Mishpacha Magazine covering the book and its author noted a significant inclusion in both the new book and the author’s previous biography of Rebbetzin Kanievsky:
“Gadol biographies” sometimes get a bad rap for portraying the subjects as infallible, perfect human beings, but Rabbi Weinberger took the reality route instead. In one section, he relates how Rebbetzin Batsheva heeded the advice of her physician and took Valium to calm her anxiety when the tragedies of her many visitors and petitioners became too much for her sensitive soul to bear. For Rabbi Weinberger, was there a level of self-censorship?
“The story about the Rebbetzin taking anti-anxiety medication actually appeared in her biography,” says Rabbi Weinberger. “The backdrop for that was an interview I conducted with her daughter and son-in-law, Rav Zelig and Rebbetzin Bracha Braverman. They told me how the Rebbetzin was very proud of her personal example when she occasionally needed the meds — it was an encouragement for others who were told by their own physicians to take medication.
“After that interview, I discussed it further with several other Kanievsky children who told me I should publish it, that the Rebbetzin would surely have wanted it published. And baruch Hashem, there’s been very nice feedback from this — from therapists, and also from people who told me they themselves became more compliant about taking necessary meds after knowing that Rebbetzin Kanievsky also took medication.”
These great people and others weren’t ashamed to get support and neither should anyone else be.
The Arizal saw the connection between speech and freedom in the very name of the upcoming Yom Tov. Pesach, he explained, comes from “Peh – sach” – “a mouth converses.” Part of affirming our freedom on Pesach is affirming the awesome responsibility that comes with freedom of speech.
Rav Kook (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 285) writes: “As the soul is elevated, we become acutely aware of the tremendous power that lies in our faculty of speech. We recognize clearly the tremendous significance of each utterance; the value of our prayers and blessings, the value of our Torah study and of all of our discourse. We learn to perceive the overall impact of speech. We sense the change and great stirring of the world that comes about through speech.”
Pre-Pesach is a time to be more careful, not callous. Let’s clean out not only our homes of chametz but also our vocabulary and lexicon of language which harms or hurts, thereby bringing the redemption one step closer.
* The next episode of Out of the Shadows: A Jewish Approach to Mental Health, will be published next week and focuses on OCD and Scrupulosity.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS), a rapidly-growing congregation of over 1,000 families in Boca Raton, Florida.